21 July 2019
Maro Pebo, a PhD student at City University of Hong Kong, meticulously injects DNA samples into a special gel to allow them to multiply. Photo: Katherine Li
Maro Pebo, a PhD student at City University of Hong Kong, meticulously injects DNA samples into a special gel to allow them to multiply. Photo: Katherine Li

Art meets science at Art Basel 2018

People tend to see art and science as two completely unrelated fields – art is brought to life by spontaneous sparks of inspiration and creativity while science is reserved for analytical minds that can handle complex numbers and experiments. However, a local artist’s display at this year’s Art Basel in Hong Kong merged the two seamlessly.

Wong Kit-yi is interested in exploring the relationship between the collector and the artist. She does not want this to be a purely monetary relationship, so she came up with the idea that a collector can sign a contract to lease a piece for 99 years, and the contract will be encoded in pieces of DNA collected from volunteers in Art Basel.

“I want to explore the theme of time, permanence, and immortality through this. Ninety-nine years may seem like a long time, but compared to DNA which could almost last forever, it is not very long,” Wong explained as she gestured towards a box of collected DNA samples.

“It is interesting to imagine what would happen when a collector passes on the lease to their grandchild, then when the years are up my grandchild would interact with them.”

Aspects of mythology such as the ancient Chinese legend of the elixir of life and the magic fungus are also presented, along with modern-day scientific discoveries such as the metabolic co-enzyme NAD+ that can reverse aging in mice.

“I think even though artists and scientists use different methods to find knowledge, the passion and curiosity are the same. Science can be too dry for many people, so art would allow people to relate to it and learn more from a different point of view,” Wong said.

However, encoding a piece of text into the DNA and collecting DNA samples are not easy tasks, which is why a professor and a student from the City University of Hong Kong were on hand to run the sample collecting station.

“All you have to do is to swipe the inside of your mouth with a cotton wad, then we have your cheek cells which contain your DNA,” said Karsten Berning, a biology professor at City University.

He explained that the cells are placed in a special gel and allowed to multiply under a high temperature for three hours. When the time is up, the cells will glow in the darkness when placed under fluorescent lights.

“At the end of the day, you can take back a little piece of artwork made out of your own DNA if you donate it to our project,” said Berning as he encouraged the audience to participate.

Enticed by the novelty of receiving a souvenir made from a part of themselves, many viewers signed the consent form and joined in, and became interested in the concept behind the project.

“I’ve seen that many works of art are kind of superficial, but combining art with technology and science gives more philosophical and interesting insights into the world, because art is a way to relate to the world,” said Maro Pebo, a PhD student studying art and science at City University who assisted in the collection of DNA samples.

In her opinion, art and science can amplify each other, which makes scientific concepts, like DNA, something that not just scientists can discuss. 

There are many works of art about love, loneliness, and social issues, but she believes there are also many scientific advances that we also have to reflect upon, which allow not only art but new knowledge to be generated in the process.

“I don’t believe that art or science should be limited to a particular group of people with more resources. By introducing science and allowing viewers to participate, art bridges the gap between fields of study and people,” Wong said.

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International journalism student at Hong Kong Baptist University

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